Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Poole, Dorset

Carter’s Cavalcade (3): Not just seed potatoes

The third (and final, for now) highlight from my visit to Poole is this panel, one of a pair, that originally came from the shop of W H Yeatman & Sons, corn and seed merchants. Yeatman’s, whose former corn mill I’d noticed when I was walking along Poole Quay earlier in the day, had a shop in the town’s High Street. These colourful tile panels decorated the shop from the late-1920s or early-1930s: clearly the owners wanted to remind people they sold more than produce for the farm or vegetable patch. The black background helps the vivid flowers stand out beautifully (there is probably Art Deco influence in this use of black), and the colours are contained within very narrow boundary lines. These were produced using tube-lining, a technique that involves applying wet clay from a syringe, rather in the way that someone icing a cake uses a piping bag. You can feel how the tube lines are raised above the rest of the surface if you run your finger across the tiles.

When Poole’s old town was redeveloped in the 1960s, these memorable panels were saved and mounted on the end of a building that is now an ice-cream parlour. Although sited at a road junction with plenty of pavement in front of them, they’re actually quite easy to miss, and I was grateful to have them pointed out to me by Jo, leader of the guided walk that brought them to my attention.* It’s fortunate that this bit of shop ornament, from a time when such decorations were expected to be in place for decades (unlike so many of today’s ephemeral plastic shop signs), were rescued. As well as serving a local business for years, they have now outlived their original raison d’être for even longer. Built to last: modern retailers please note.

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* Anyone wishing to take part in one of these excellent walks should follow Jo Amey on her Facebook page, The Tile Lady. The page has many pictures of beautiful tiles and she also posts information about the walks there.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Poole, Dorset

Carter’s Cavalcade (2): Hunting the hart

‘Now we’re going to go into Halford’s,’ said Jo, leading our surprised group* into a building which was the scene of what seemed to be the last stages of a closing-down sale: the shop is one of those branches of Halford’s that is to cease trading. Diverting our gaze away from the cut-price car accessories, Jo pointed up the stairs, and this panel is what we saw.

It is the work of Tony Morris for Carter’s of Poole. The White Hart Hotel commissioned the sign in the 1960s and when the hotel closed, Halford’s took over the building. Later they moved, and took the finely drawn ceramic stag with them, displaying him in their High Street premises, where he has been delighting people buying car batteries, windscreen wiper blades, and adjustable spanners ever since. For now, though, we were taking advantage of the last chance to see this rare tiled species, staring at us (is he apprehensive, defiant, or just vigilant?) from atop his pedestal. We were assured that the Hart would remain in position when Halford’s move out. One hopes that the new tenants of the building will display this striking piece of ceramic art with pride.

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* We were on a guided walk. See the previous post for details.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Poole, Dorset

Carter’s cavalcade (1): Very Art Nouveau

I’m going to devote the next couple of posts to some of the things I saw on a visit to Poole the other day, when I went on a guided walk through the centre of the town led by Jo Amey, known online as The Tile Lady. The subject of the walk was the legacy of Carter & Co, the ceramics company that was once based in Poole and which produced a range of tiles, a number of which can be found on buildings around the town. Not all of these are in their original positions, and not all of them are easy to find, which was one reason I was very grateful to go on this walk.*

One of the tile gems we saw on the walk was this glowing panel bearing Carter’s name. It dates to around 1905 and was originally on a wall of the company’s East Quay works. When the works closed and the quayside was redeveloped, several examples of tiling from the old works were displayed on the walls of the new building: this is one of them. It’s prized for its rich reds and its beautiful lustre glazes. A lustre glaze is a metallic glaze that shines with iridescence, an effect produced by metallic oxides. Lustreware was produced in the great civilisations of early Islam, but its most famous exponent in the west was William de Morgan, who revived lustre glazes in the 1870s. The iridescent tiles in this panel were made under the influence of de Morgan, and they make a sumptuous border for the central area of the imposition, framing the company name.

The artful lettering of the Carter’s name is the other reason why I particularly like these tiles. Their expressively curvaceous lines are the essence of the Art Nouveau style, as many readers will recognise. The way the letters are full of curves and loops, the manner in which they break free of the base line, and their habit of overlapping and interlacing – all these are typical of Art Nouveau. But the most typical feature of all is the collection of multiple curves, many doubling back on themselves like waves or whips – hence the term ‘whiplash curve’, by which they’re known. Wherever there is Art Nouveau lettering of the curvaceous kind†, from the posters of Afons Mucha¶ to the early Paris Metro stations, you will find whiplash curves.

Now when I do talks and lectures I can show people instantly what architectural Art Nouveau is about. And one couldn’t wish for a more beautiful or memorable way to explain this.

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* Another reason is Jo’s wealth of knowledge of the subject; I’d advise anyone who might want to go on one of her walks to follow her Facebook page, The Tile Lady . The page has many pictures of beautiful tiles and she posts information about the walks there too.

† The other dominant form of Art Nouveau, the style of the Secessionist movement that prevailed in Germany and Central Europe, is much more rectilinear.

¶ Also known as Alphonse Mucha. His many French posters, his long residence in Paris, and this spelling of his name lead many people to assume he was French (or perhaps Belgian). Actually he was born in Moravia, which is part of what is now the Czech Republic. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Halse, Northamptonshire

Flexible, portable, durable

The Northamptonshire town of Brackley is somewhere I’ve visited often, but on my most recent visit I left the town by a route I’d not tried before and soon found myself in Halse, staring at this small corrugated iron church. I knew nothing of its history, but was reminded of others* I’d seen – the Mission Chapel at Halse has an impressive selection of the features – pointed ‘Gothic’ inserts to the rectangular windows, quatrefoil openings, a small spire – that could be fitted to a corrugated iron building in the 19th century to indicate that it was a church.

When I got home I looked online, and found the church’s website.† It tells how in 1885 the curate from Brackley had to walk about a mile to Halse to take services in someone’s dining room. It was thought that the congregation of about 40 people (most of the hamlet’s adult population) deserved a place of worship of their own, and the Earl of Ellesmere bought this building for them in 1900. Apparently he bought it secondhand – it had been a ‘railway community room’ for workers building local railways and had to be taken apart and moved to its present site, demonstrating that these prefabricated buildings are portable and adaptable. One wonders whether the ecclesiastical features were added when it was moved to its current location.

The church is still in use and, after a major repair and restoration program in 1999 it looks in good shape – tin churches were not expected to last 100 years. The direction of the very strong sunlight meant I found it hard to take a photograph that does the church full justice (the spire is lurking in the shadows), but I hope the pattern of corrugations, fence uprights, and green leaves is at least pleasant to the eye.

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* I’ve previously done posts on ‘tin churches’ at Rodley, Coombe Green, Defford and Kilburn, London.

† I am indebted to the website of St Peter’s, Brackley for information about the building’s history.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Lutterworth, Leicestershire

Why I like this

This tile panel is on the side of a building in the centre of Lutterworth. The building is now a coffee shop but was clearly once a pharmacy. The panel combines so many of my interests I couldn’t resist sharing it here. So here are my personal reasons for valuing this obscure bit of tiling, that enlivens a side wall in a backstreet.

First of all, the way builders and architects have used tiles – to decorate buildings, to form signs, to create wipe-down surfaces, and so on – has been a source of fascination for me for years. Whether it’s a Victorian gents or an underground station, a butcher’s shop or a house, tiles play their role, and bring a bit of colour into our lives in the process.

Second, it’s on a shop, and retail architecture, ignored by so many but omnipresent, rich in social history, and central to our daily lives, deserves more attention than it usually gets. I’m often struck by tiles on shops. I don’t just mean the ‘hygienic’ surfaces favoured by food retailers, but also – and especially – the way tiles can be used for display and advertisement: the vigorous and often artfully drawn animalier tiles once beloved of butchers ands fishmongers are a case in point; the tile lettering used by retailers such as Lipton’s is another. Here, the old symbols of the chemist – the flask, pestle and mortar – are given a mid-century modern interpretation.

Third is that mid-century modern period itself. The effort that was put into decorating buildings in the 1950s and 1960s, with sculpture, murals, tiles, and sometimes indeed tile murals, is at last getting the attention it deserves. People are still unearthing little known examples and I’m pleased to share this one, which must be well known in Lutterworth but unfamiliar to people elsewhere.* A lot of 1960s architecture was dull, and many people find concrete buildings oppressive and ugly. I don’t,§ but I get even more out of such buildings when they bear this kind of decoration.

Fourth, it’s illustration, and as my working life has revolved around illustrated books I’m always interested in the ways artists represent things, even such humble things as a pestle and mortar. I like the way the artist (I’ve no idea who it was, or which company produced the tiles†) has managed to convey the modelling of these objects with just a few strokes of yellow, green and grey, with a swelling of the line here and a diminution there giving some liveliness to the drawing. And although I’m fond of bright colours, I can find something to admire in the restricted palette too, perhaps because it reminds me of the sort of restrictions we faced in the early years of my publishing career, when we often had to get the best out of two-colour printing if the full four colours were too costly.

I know that 1960s architecture, and illustrative panels like this, are not to everyone’s taste. Sometimes when I show this sort of thing to audiences of talks or participants on courses, they groan (not always audibly, but one can sense the response!), as if longing for a decent bit of Georgian elegance. I hope I’ve explained some of the reasons why such things appeal to me.

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* It doesn’t seem to be in Lynn F Pearson’s admirable Tile Gazetteer, for example. This book is, however, my tile Bible.

§ And yes, I have lived in one. I also went to school in a Brutalist building, and while I don’t subscribe to the ‘schooldays are the happiest days of your life’ notion, the building was certainly one of the things I did like about school.

† The name of the building’s architect, however, is inscribed on the tiles, making me wonder if he designed the tile decoration too. He was Derrick A Knightley, a local man with what sounds like a substantial practice. The date 1961 is also one the tiles.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Theme and variations

Passing through the area of Cheltenham known as ‘the Suffolks’ the other day, my eye was caught by these capitals. They’re part of one of the town’s most beautiful terraces, which runs along one side of Suffolk Square, itself part of a development on land once owned by the Earl of Suffolk and built in 1832–48. The original architect was local man Edward Jenkins, who probably did the overall design before he left Cheltenham* and was replaced by the more famous J B Papworth.

Jenkins included a grand portico-like arrangement of columns and pediments at either end of the row, and the columns are topped by these Corinthian capitals.† I was struck when I looked up how the architect used two variations on the Corinthian design here. There are four round three-quarter columns like the left-hand one in the photograph above, almost free-standing, with a full complement of flutes and the usual Corinthian capital, which has two layers of leaves topped by small scrolls. These are framed by two outer columns, this time square, fluteless, and bearing an abbreviated or truncated version of the capital. This is what you see in the right-hand capital in the photograph, a capital with  leaves only at the corners and a strip of egg and dart moulding that fills the space between them. This different design allows the architect to put two columns very close together without the straight repetition of capital design that one sometimes sees.

These adapted capitals are a reminder that designers and builders were always coming up with variations on the five ‘classic’ orders. In the past I’ve noted the Borromini order (a sort of upside-down Ionic) in Blandford, a Pergamene order in Clifton, a bird stretching its wings among Corinthian foliage in Birmingham, and the wonderfully eccentric and original ammonite order in Lewes§. Classicism in England is often most interesting when not a straitjacket but a jumping-off point for design, a place for elegant variations within a standard framework of features and proportions. And how well it works.

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* For more on the circumstances under which Jenkins left his drawing board, see my earlier post on the church he and Papworth designed, which is very near these houses.

† Their acanthus leaves and small scrolls make them Corinthian; larger scrolls (like those on Ionic capitals) above the leaves would make them Composite.

§ And even a Gothic order, taking us outside the sphere of Classicism

Friday, July 27, 2018

Newent, Gloucestershire

Hats on

These recent weeks of hot weather have seen me more often than not wearing a hat when out and about. The media have been full of advice about covering up and I’ve also seen statistics about the great temperature difference in the shade. I don’t need statistics, though – in sun this hot I instinctively make for shadows, overhangs, arcades, and other refuges, like this lovely timber-framed market house or Butter Market, built in c. 1668 in Newent. It has one big room upstairs and a ground-floor open-sided space for a market: the same layout as many others in English and Welsh towns. The timber work on the end in the sun is quite plain, but the side facing the street has a winning combination of diagonal and curved braces, together with curvy bargeboards to please the eye. The weather vane – in the form of a running fox – is an added touch of charm that catches the sun.

The space for the market has quite a low ceiling – there are about ten feet of headroom – and if not a forest at least a grove of thick supporting posts. The effect of standing inside it reminded me of a description by Ian Nairn of another market house, the one in Llanidloes. Nairn described the even lower space in the market house there as ‘a very personal possessed space: it is not so much a question of walking in but of putting it on like a hat.’ In Newent I tried on the building myself for a minute, before walking out again into the sunshine. The fit was not bad at all.

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§ See Ian Nairn, Nairn’s Towns (updated edition, Notting Hill Editions, 2013)